Saturday, April 15, 2006

How the Hateful Propaganda War is Waged

By Franklin Raff
© 2006

An Iraqi officer of significant rank approached my translator as I quietly
took notes near the banks of the Euphrates River, at a combat observation
post named COP Dunlop. He knew I was an embedded American. He had a sense,
perhaps, that I was a sympathetic soul, and he wanted to pass along an
urgent message.

Franklin Raff

We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. I learned he was an educated and
successful man, an accomplished soldier, and quite knowledgeable about the
affairs of the world. He had served under Saddam. He openly spoke about the
likelihood of corruption in the new Iraqi Ministry of Defense. We spoke
about black-market arms trading, ancient smuggling routes, and the problem
of porous borders.

We even discussed personal matters, and the question of his taking a second
wife. (I told him the one about a thousand pair of panty-hose hanging from
King Solomon's shower-curtain.) We had a reasonably long and genuine
conversation about matters of importance to all men. And at a certain
moment, he grew a little uneasy and blurted out what he had wanted to say
from the beginning:

Why do you people not tell our story? Why do you not say what is going on?
Why do you come to our country and see what is happening, you see the
schools and the hospitals and you see the markets and you eat with Sunni and
Shia soldiers – everybody eats together, everybody works together –you see
that Saddam is gone forever and we are free to speak and complain.

You see we are working and eating together and fighting together – Sunni and
Shia – you see what we are building here, you see the votes we make as one
people. Then you say to the world about a great war and horrible things and
how we are all killing each other? We are not animals! We are Iraqis. Look
around you! Look!

Non-English speaking Iraqis are distressed and disheartened by American
media bias. Many feel personally offended by what they read in translation
and hear of in the foreign press. I am not talking about press information
and public affairs officers. I am not talking about coalition soldiers
(though every one I spoke with on the subject was equally frustrated.) I am
talking about Arabic-speaking Iraqis. They see a difference between what
we're seeing and what we're saying. What does that tell you about the extent
of our problem?

I was truly "downrange" in Iraq, embedded in Baghdad, Sadr City, Fallujah,
and a series of remote combat outposts and forward operations bases in the
Sunni Triangle. I spent much of my time in areas that were in immediate
transition or wholly controlled by Iraqi forces. I wanted to get dirty, and
I wanted to see the worst of it.

I was entirely too close to a vehicle-borne IED – intended, possibly, to
destroy my party – which tragically killed a U.S. Marine and a young Iraqi
boy. I trampled through a mass of depleted uranium, breathed the squalor of
a Saddam-era slum, slept uneasily through the bursts of an urban gunfight,
and dined on the partially-cooked head of a sheep. But these are not my most
disturbing recollections.

Civil unrest is distasteful and at times gruesome, but in much of the Middle
East it is an abiding condition. The scenes that flicker in my mind seem
graver than the filth, disorder, and sorrow that have been a part of Iraq's
dramatic transition. And now that I have returned to Washington, as memories
play alongside my daily media intake, they combine to create an increasingly
gloomy montage.

It was hilarious at the time. So funny, in fact, I nearly wept. I will never
forget the sight of my colleague, a well-known, market-leading radio
reporter feverishly clutching his satellite phone as a Chinook transport
helicopter flew by, half a mile or so away. He was standing right beside me
as he dialed through the time zones to go "live from Iraq":

We're right in the middle of the action! I'm sorry ... I can't hear you!
There's a Blackhawk landing right behind me! I can't quite describe what's
going on! This is unbelievable!

At the time, you see, we were just outside an Embassy chow hall, quietly
discussing the weather. We had just eaten a magnificent lunch. In this
combat reporter's trembling right hand was the target of his desperate
screams, the satellite phone – his listeners' link to the horror and chaos
of war, the sweat and tears, the booming, blood-shod tragedy of it all. And
in his left hand – I swear it – a chocolate milkshake.

There is plenty of bombast in the green zone. "On the scene" excitement
breeds hyperbole, and many reporters are pretentious and boastful to begin
with. There's no need to name names: Most folks can smell manure wrapped in
newsprint, no matter who does the wrapping. But I quietly curse when I think
of all the self-styled Ernie Pyles in their Baghdad hotel rooms, staring out
over the city skyline, giving you news "from the front."

Let me tell you what has become somewhat of a running joke among coalition
soldiers. It is evening, and a boom is heard in the distance. Some foreign
fighter has blown himself up, and maybe he's taken one of ours with him.
Maybe it's an IED. Or it might be an attack on one of our new electrical
transformers, engineered to dishearten and confuse Iraqi citizens by
depriving them of a nights' electricity. Nobody knows yet, but that doesn't
really matter.

Our journalist, "on the line" in his cushy suite, scrambles to the balcony.
He sees a puff of dust on the horizon, shivers in the cool night air and the
intensity of the moment, and turns down CNN on the television. He e-mails
his editor about these explosive developments and then, with a cool beer in
hand, begins writing about a great and desperate war. Brothers in the
crosshairs. A rag-tag insurrection, gaining momentum in dramatic increments.
A few historical references. A scribbled, out-of-context comment overheard
in the mess hall. A line or two from some radical imam, if a desirable
translation can be found. Bingo: It's a front-page story.

Embedded news-gatherers – even those with military experience, as was the
case with me and my immediate company – are essentially expensive luggage.
We take up valuable space. We are unarmed, untrained, generally unfit, and
we tend to get in the way. We are valuable targets for the border-hopping,
media-crazed murderers who seek instability and chaos. But this isn't what
irritates our defenders. What bothers them is that when we put pen to paper,
we tend to stab them squarely in the back by misrepresenting and
over-dramatizing our experiences. It is no wonder a "PRESS" tag will get you
a few hairy eyeballs in the field: There's a general consensus that we are

The lies aren't relegated to firsthand reports. I listen to NPR every
morning. I read the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal,
and scan any number of online media. As a lifelong and moderately
accomplished student of war history and of the works (and memoranda) of men
like Sergei Eisenstein and Josef Goebbels, I have been keenly aware of an
increasing use of elemental propaganda techniques and tactics in
"mainstream" reporting on the war.

Good news from Iraq, for instance, is systematically, if delicately,
prefaced with the indication of a biased source. I am almost certain there
is a standing order at outfits like NPR's "Morning Edition" to compromise
positive stories with selections from an arsenal of useful poll numbers. For
good measure, the stories are often relegated to commentary segments of the
program, in order to lend a casual and dismissive air to core information.

Let's use, for example, the fact that Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders are
organizing innumerable micro-summits to resolve their tribal differences in
the name of national unity. Participation is nearly 100 percent,
negotiations are largely fruitful, and leaders from local imams on up want
to reiterate to the press, just like our Iraqi officer did, that despite
isolated attacks and foreign insurgent activity, there is no "civil war"
going on. So the Pentagon releases selections from this tapestry of
reassuring stories in the standard manner along with requisite sound-bytes,
interview opportunities, and raw statistics. The news is verifiable, rich in
human interest, and undeniably positive. Here's how it plays on "Morning

The president has admitted he was wrong about WMD, and now, according to the
White House, Shia and Sunni leaders are evidently trying to work together to
try and quell the burgeoning civil war. Approval ratings for the Bush
administration and the war are at an all-time low, so the question is:
What's behind these last-ditch efforts, and can they possibly succeed?
Joining me to discuss this is NPR senior news analyst Cokie Roberts ...

In the minds of those who do not recognize the telltale signs of subversive
delivery, the desired effect is achieved.

This effect – to convince the world that Iraq is a hopeless and violent
wasteland, heartbreaking evidence, even, of a trigger-happy cowboy's
hubris – is compounded and reaffirmed day after day, as biased and
exaggerated reports reverberate through and within thousands of local and
syndicated media outlets. As George Orwell explained in his dystopian novel
"1984," "If all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into
history and became truth."

I wanted to confess to my new friend, the Iraqi officer at COP Dunlop, that
we have an autocracy in America that has never been deposed – an imperious
corps of convenience-isolationists with short memories and powerful
imaginations. I wanted to explain that though there are hardly any soldiers
among them, they rule the thoughts and actions of legions of citizens.

I wanted to tell him about our media elite, about how "if it bleeds, it
leads," about our 24-hour news cycle, and about the "Journal of Record" and
its endless struggle to embarrass and discredit our president. I wanted to
tell him that the same folks who tell us they're giving the world "all the
news that's fit to print" are the same ones who deep-sixed Babi Yar and
ignored the Holocaust, the same ones who bury stories about Saddam's mass
graves and "spike" Iraqi efforts to show us the awe-inspiring progress they
have made.

I wanted to acknowledge that too many Americans lack the fortitude and
patience to stand behind our new Iraqi allies as they forge a new nation. I
wanted to explain that certain powerful Americans feel we didn't find quite
enough chemical, nuclear and biological weapons to make our multinational
effort worthwhile – no matter what we have, in fact, found; no matter what
the Iraqis witnessed, no matter our soldiers' experiences and testimony, no
matter Iraq's success thus far.

I wanted to tell him that not all media people are liars. But I knew that my
thoughts were too complicated to make it through translation. I knew that
when I returned to America, the words "civil war" would be plastered all
over the mainstream media, just as they were when I left. So I held my

I returned to what I expected. All the hotshot analysts and commentators are
speculating, with that requisite gravitas, about the "roots" of civil war.

I was there. I was in some miserable places, but I saw a miracle every day.
I saw a lot of smiles, a lot of hope, and a lot of pride in that traumatized
country. I saw a remarkably fraternal affection between Iraqi and coalition
soldiers. I saw bustling markets, busy streets, and peaceful demonstrations.
I believe I may have witnessed a pivotal time in the infancy of a vibrant,
freedom-loving ally in the Middle East.

I did not see a civil war. I did not see the beginnings of a civil war. But
I did learn a thing or two about the "roots" of this civil war: Iraq's civil
war has been engineered, in no small part, from the comfort of a Baghdad
hotel room. It is catalyzed by minor exaggerations, partial facts, and
propagandistic suppressions. It will escalate, over time and across media,
as minor mistruths beget outright lies, until the truth itself begins to

As our new Iraqi allies become discouraged by what they see in the world
news, and as they start losing hope, they may abandon their dreams once and
for all. Our media's dark prophecies will then have fulfilled themselves.
Then, and tragically, Iraqi and coalition pleas for "truth" may finally be


terrye said...

I have often wondered if the Iraqis get tired of being portrayed as savages, barbarians, and screw ups by our oh so enlightened media.

Anonymous said...


I have often thought that if Iraq becomes a success, Iraqis will be shunned by the Left in the same way as Israelis and Cuban-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans are today put slightly beyond the pale, as living rebukes to core leftist beliefs.

Barry Dauphin said...

The writing is quite vivid. This would make for a very interesting movie.

David Thomson said...

“I have often thought that if Iraq becomes a success, Iraqis will be shunned by the Left in the same way as Israelis and Cuban-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans are today put slightly beyond the pale, as living rebukes to core leftist beliefs.”

That’s an excellent point. I’m relatively sure that this is exactly what will occur. Leftists cannot admit defeat. They must remain loyal to the vision. What’s a few broken eggs when an omelet is still waiting to be prepared?

Ed onWestSlope said...

"What’s a few broken eggs when an omelet is still waiting to be prepared?"
Another planned meal which will resist digestion. It becomes very difficult to even discuss such rot. And yet it must be discussed and not ignored.

terrye said...


I love your name.

Syl said...

Frustration. Every muscle in my body is taught with tension. Watching C-Span who is running a panel on the articles of impeachment against Bush, hearing about the smoking gun of the Downing Street memo (rolling eyes), the lies in the case for war, the condoning of torture, blah blah blah blah blah.

Had to turn it off.

Camer here to tell everyone on the right to watch these things and the danger the Democrats pose if they take over the House and to VOTE in Novemeber instead of sitting on hands because some are irritated with petty matters about Bush.

And read this.

It's beyond depressing. The Iraqi people are REAL people with REAL hopes, aspirations, and lives. We have given them a gift and they're learning how to use it.

And the Democrats and the Left simply spit on them.

Syl said...

We are failing, you know.

Perhaps instead of shunning the Left we should adopt their tactic of identifying victim groups and start showing everyone how the Left is hurting the Iraqi people. Iraqis are victims of Bush hatred.

Bush himself would say he doesn't care what is said about him, but leave the Iraqi people out of it.

Thought Criminal said...

I love the idea of a Bush impeachment.

President Cheney.

I can hear the moonbat skulls exploding when they finally realize what they've done.